VOL. 9 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 23, 2016
Bridging a Divide
By Madeline Faber
The Mid-South is united by more than the Mississippi River, but that’s what it took to get the region’s mayors in the same room.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Mississippi River flood, damage stretched from Millington’s naval base to Memphis’ Beale Street. Leaders of the affected municipalities had to come together to apply for FEMA grants and plot their way out of devastation.
That’s when Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman noticed the perspective shifting from city-specific concerns to how to strengthen the Mid-South region as a whole.
Parts of three states comprise the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area, which creates challenges for area leaders when recruiting businesses to the region. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
“We're all affected by this great natural barrier and natural resource here. Maybe we ought to plan together better on how we're going to deal with these issues in the future,” he said.
But to think clearly about regionalism, or mobilizing around issues that reach beyond political boundaries and state lines, people have to redefine what designates a barrier.
On April 28, more than 200 leaders from the private and public sectors will gather for the Mid-South’s first RegionSmart summit.
Panels and lectures will focus on big-picture issues, like regional transportation, education and workforce development, city building and suburban retrofitting, building a healthy Mid-South and the impact of demographic shifts on the Mid-South economy.
“You can't just say, ‘I'm going to deal with the air quality in my area,’” Huffman said. “We need to talk about the issues that are all interconnected and affect all of us and require more than a local effort.”
‘Behind the times, somewhat’
The RegionSmart Conference is hosted by the Mid-South Mayors’ Council, a group of mayors across 14 municipalities in eastern Arkansas, northern Mississippi and southwest Tennessee.
The Mid-South Mayors’ Council is an initiative of ULI Memphis, a nonpolitical group that has convened planning discussions around local issues like the future of the Soulsville neighborhood and the Mid-South Coliseum and Fairgrounds. A cross-state, cross-county convening would be one of their most far-reaching initiatives.
A grant from the national ULI Foundation led to the inaugural meeting of the mayors’ council in May 2013. At that first meeting, Tom Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, and Jim Hovland, the current mayor of Edina, Minn., spoke to the group about their successes in establishing a common platform with surrounding municipalities. Subsequent meetings of the mayors’ council focused around specific issues, like disaster preparedness or site selection criteria.
But all of it will come full circle at RegionSmart, with Murphy closing out the conference with a session on the power of regional collaboration.
Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson, left, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman are among 14 Mid-South mayors who will convene and discuss ways to make the region more attractive to business at the RegionSmart Conference on Thursday, April 28. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
While it’s specific to tri-state issues, RegionSmart mirrors the Nashville-based Power of Ten Conference. Its convening body of mayors, Cumberland Region Tomorrow, dates back to 2000. Regional conferences started picking up speed across the U.S. nearly 20 years ago, according to Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties.
“We're kind of behind the times, somewhat,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. “Again, we're not reinventing the wheel. We're just trying to get our own wheel.”
Shelby County is seeing a slower recovery from the economic downturn than the rest of the U.S. Compared to 4 percent growth nationally, Shelby County has seen only a 1 percent population increase between 2010 and 2015, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The 2014 median income is 16 percent behind the national average, and the poverty rate, at 23 percent, towers above many metros.
“You could say that as the Memphis area and Shelby County goes, the rest of us kind of follow that,” said Huffman.
With nearly 1 million citizens, Shelby County is the heart of the Memphis metropolitan statistical area. When Memphis hits a dirty dozen list for poor performance – whether it’s based on crime rate, poverty, educational attainment – the lists are often based on Memphis MSA data. Further, companies and employees who want to relocate are looking at that data.
“If we think about ourselves as being isolated from all the other communities around us, then we're missing the point,” said Paul Young, director of the city of Memphis’ Division of Housing and Community Development.
While each municipality has its own specific challenges, leaders need to be rallying behind economic development for the region. Supporters of RegionSmart are betting that a big-picture view will pull the Mid-South out of its stagnant growth and push the area to compete on a national scale.
“You look at Nashville – that whole area is booming. Our metropolitan area, compared to other metropolitan areas, is not growing,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said, adding that Nashville’s surrounding counties and municipalities are also seeing an increase in wealth and opportunity.
“My gut is, the people in Nashville don't bemoan that,” he said.
Any real estate professional in the sector could tell you that Shelby County is struggling to keep up with North Mississippi’s industrial boom. When states are competing for new industry and property tax revenue, it’s hard to check ego at the door in the name of regionalism.
“In Memphis, you can make all three states compete against each other, and the buildings are only a few miles from each other. That’s a very unique situation we have in our market,” said Hank Martin, vice president with NAI Saig Co.
Memphis hasn’t seen any new speculative industrial construction since 2007, while this area’s most active submarket, DeSoto County, has added 6 million square feet of Class A space. That disparity has led a group of local commercial real estate owners to advocate for more advantageous tax incentives in Shelby County to help the area compete with its neighbor market.
That competitive relationship isn’t going to disappear overnight, but Shelby County isn’t just going head-to-head with DeSoto County. It’s competing for new business with metropolitan areas both nationally and internationally.
“Because we are three states, I think it's easy for us to get hung up on those boundaries, and all that does is reduce our chances of being successful and competing with other areas that are competing collectively,” said Frank Ricks, principal of architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss and board member with ULI Memphis.
Instead, conflicting municipalities need to be touting each other’s strengths in the name of collaborative marketing.
“We can’t be everything to everybody,” said Hernando, Mississippi Mayor Chip Johnson. In his view, Memphis provides the logistics infrastructure, Arkansas has a strong trucking industry, and North Mississippi operates as a warehousing district and bedroom community for skilled workers.
“I'm all in favor of jointly marketing this area. When we're competing against Dallas and Salt Lake City and Louisville and St. Louis, I want us all to be in the same boat,” Strickland added.
Selling a region, rather than a city’s individual industrial district, is in line with how site selectors settle on a location for a new company.
“They look at market share, traffic patterns and quality of education in that area. We need to be working on those issues, as a region.”
–Jeff Huffman, Tipton County mayor
“Citizens aren’t that interested in a city boundary or county boundary,” Huffman said. “They, like folks that represent companies looking to build manufacturing plants, care less about limits. They look at market share, traffic patterns and quality of education in that area. We need to be working on those issues, as a region.”
Young added that a coordinated approach to economic development could be touchy to maneuver. The counties in this MSA are naturally well-suited to support different types of businesses. Young envisions that counties would be targeted for recruiting different kinds of business instead of laboring in competition with each other. The region, as a whole, would stand behind these efforts, he says.
Greenprint sets the stage
Organizers and supporters of the RegionSmart Conference aren’t walking in blindly to regional dialogue. In many ways, the Mid-South Regional Greenprint and Sustainability Plan set the stage for RegionSmart.
“I think the Greenprint initiative was the perfect example for this kind of work,” Ricks said.
The Greenprint was born out of a 2011 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant was housed in Shelby County, but 18 municipalities signed on to the far-reaching plan for a network of greenways and trails that will connect citizens with mass transit and job opportunities.
In his previous position, Young served as coordinator for the Greenprint. He said that HUD grant could have been used for anything, but his team settled on improving access to green spaces because it was a fairly inoffensive subject. It was always his plan to test the waters with the Greenprint and use the model to mobilize around other regional issues.
“We thought greenways and trails would be a nice way to start the conversation around regionalism,” Young said. “It was an issue that, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you can begin to see some value in it.”
Still, there was some resistance in breaking the ice between municipalities that previously had limited communication with each other. Young said leaders outside of Shelby County were especially concerned with whether the plan would address their issues.
“That really was my insight into urban planning and our shortcomings and the things we needed to do,” Luttrell added.
More than 300 citizens contributed to the study that formed the Greenprint plan, which Luttrell believes demonstrates a hunger for regional dialogue.
“I know it sounds trite, but when you’re flying on your bike, going down a trail, you really don’t know what a state line is,” added Johnson. “They’re really taxing and governmental boundaries, and that’s all they amount to.”
RegionSmart wraps with a call to action by the Mid-South Mayors’ Council, where leaders will ask the audience to uphold the momentum that led to the area’s first regional conference.
“There are a lot of problems we face in the Mid-South that are going to take collaboration and planning on a long-term basis,” said Huffman.
Through the conference, Luttrell said the mayors’ council plans to identify two or three areas of focus. ULI Memphis would help the council identify how those areas of focus are connected and how the various municipalities could plug into an overarching solution.
“We don't want to make it just another political confab,” Luttrell said.
Chase, who will address the RegionSmart audience with a lecture on regionalism as a national trend, said that the Mid-South is off to a good start, but has to overcome some thorny issues.
And while Memphis, as the largest city in the MSA, has the lion’s share of economic disparity, those problems don’t just affect the city’s 650,000 citizens.
“But still the region is going to have to do more. Because you've got issues with disparity, high poverty levels, and you're going to need to think a little bit differently and tackle some uncomfortable issues,” Chase said. “People think they aren't impacted by moving out to suburbs, but they are.”
The conference launches in the tailwinds of a larger, controversial debate where the flag of regionalism wasn’t flying as high. Less than a month ago, the Tennessee Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have allowed residents of neighborhoods that Memphis had annexed since 1998 to de-annex by referendum. The bill raised a tide of opposition from the city of Memphis and the Memphis business community, but it found support in some of the most recently annexed areas, particularly Southwind-Windyke and south Cordova.
“I think we need to emphasize that we’re all in this together,” Strickland said. “The suburbs need a strong Memphis and Memphis needs strong suburbs.”